We also know that several current and former State Department officials worried that the Trump administration was politicizing their work.
But going into the first week of public hearings, we don’t have some key details pinned down that could go a long way to firming up Democrats’ case against Trump. Such as:
1. Who was directing all of this?
Did Trump himself order aid withheld to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political opponents? Or were some people in his administration acting of their own volition or their interpretation of what he wanted?
In September, as this was all getting started, The Washington Post reported Trump told his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to hold off on the aid just before Trump called Ukraine’s new president and asked for political investigations. That is according to three senior administration officials. But weeks of interviews with current and former administration officials have yet to connect the dots that Trump explicitly ordered the aid withheld to force Ukraine to do something for him.
The closest investigators have gotten to that comes from Trump donor-turned-diplomat Gordon Sondland. He talked to Trump frequently on Ukraine and testified he “presumed” that there was a deal offered Ukraine: military aid for investigations. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget, where the aid stop was executed, have refused calls to testify.
2. What was Mulvaney’s role?
If anyone knows why the aid was paused, it’s likely Mulvaney. He publicly said Trump held up the money to try to force Ukraine to investigate a conspiracy theory about their involvement in the 2016 election. “Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server?” he said in October. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.” He tried later to walk that back by saying there was no quid pro quo, but at the very least he’s said he knows the aid was held up and why.
Two current and former national security officials also said they heard Mulvaney was ordering the aid to be held up in exchange for investigations.
As we saw more about Mulvaney’s involvement in the transcripts of closed-door testimony, Democrats subpoenaed him. He didn’t show Friday. And then he did something really interesting: Instead of continuing to defend Trump unequivocally, he lawyered up and asked to join a lawsuit by other White House aides asking a judge if they should testify or obey the White House. That move has raised a lot of questions, including whether he knows more than he’s publicly said.
3. What was Rudolph Giuliani’s role?
National security officials in Washington and diplomats in Ukraine were concerned about and mystified by Trump’s personal lawyer, who was working in Ukraine despite having no diplomatic experience nor a government title. Why was Giuliani running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, and who was he doing it for?
He seemed to have the ear of Trump; Ukrainians would request to talk to Giuliani rather than administration officials. Or Trump would tell other administration officials to talk to Giuliani. He even told Ukraine’s president to talk to Giuliani. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call,” Trump tells President Volodymyr Zelensky on the phone in July.
If Giuliani was acting of his own volition, his motives are unclear. But we do know two of his business associates — who were recently indicted on campaign finance charges — had ties to Ukraine, and State Department officials have testified they may have felt threatened by anti-corruption efforts U.S. diplomats were leading against some Ukrainian officials.
4. Did Ukraine know why its military aid and an Oval Office meeting were withheld?
Sondland testified he told the Ukrainians that they were likely to get their aid released when they announced an investigation into Democrats. The acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, William Taylor, was in close contact with Ukrainians, and he testified they knew what was being asked of them — and didn’t want to do it. “I think it was becoming clear to the Ukrainians that, to get this meeting that they wanted, they would have to commit to pursuing these investigations,” he said.
Whether Ukraine knew it was being forced into something would go a long way to confirming a quid pro quo. But Democrats are starting to argue a quid pro quo isn’t necessary to impeach Trump. If the president tried to hold back taxpayer aid he wasn’t supposed to hold back to help his campaign, they think they can make the case that’s extortion or bribery.
“Extortion doesn’t require a ‘you give me this, and I’ll give you that’ kind of quid pro quo,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It simply requires using your muscle to get something that you don’t have a right to.”
5. Why did Trump dislike Ukraine in the first place?
This was also perplexing to those who testified. Trump seemed amenable to the notion that Ukraine was involved in interference in the 2016 election, even though his own intelligence agents have said it was Russia. A witness who listened to Trump’s call with Ukraine, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, said Trump was positive toward Ukraine’s president in April, then had a notably cooler tone when they talked in July, even though people in his administration were singing Zelensky’s praises as a U.S. ally.
Recently released grand jury documents in the Mueller report show that two of his top campaign aides, who have been indicted, pushed the idea that Ukraine was the interference country. These aides also conspicuously had business dealings in Russia, as The Fix’s Aaron Blake writes.
His hostility to Ukraine was evident — and baffling — to many in his administration from its early days. Here’s how The Post’s Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey described what they presumed was root of that:
In the end, most U.S. officials agreed that Trump’s anger with Ukraine, like many of his grievances, was connected with the 2016 election and his feeling that Ukraine was responsible for the humiliating fall of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Trump’s hatred, they concluded, was ingrained, irrational and possibly irreversible.
The anti-Ukraine mantle seems to be carried now by Giuliani, who has business associates with ties to Ukraine and seemed more than willing to do the bidding of Ukrainians who had his ear. “I would love to see what Rudy was saying to him,” a senior administration official told Jaffe. “That’s the big unknown. That would put the puzzle pieces together.”
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